OKEECHOBEE — Short on cash to make big land purchases with public money, environmental officials are increasingly turning to ranchers and other landowners to help in projects aimed at flood prevention, water quality improvement and Everglades restoration.
Eight ranchers north of Lake Okeechobee signed land management deals this week with the Department of Environmental Protection and the South Florida Water Management District. The water management district is now involved in about 100 such contracts, which are seen as a cheaper alternative to traditional government land acquisition programs.
"It's cost-effective for the government, it's profitable for the ranchers and it's good for the environment," said Melissa Meeker, executive director of the water management district.
The projects vary from site to site, but often take the shape of the one Meeker and other officials surveyed at Dixie Cattle Ranch in Okeechobee. Woody Larson, the ranch's owner, has built simple berms, levees and other catchment areas to hold rainwater.
Holding the water on site acts as a flood prevention tool at Lake Okeechobee, to where waters run south. By preventing it from running into the lake, runoff is also kept out of estuaries, where freshwater can alter the salinity levels, which in turn can disturb sea grass, a cornerstone of life in such bodies of water. And the water storage also plays into larger Everglades restoration efforts, by curbing the flow of phosphorous, a fertilizer that fosters the growth of cattails that can limit native vegetation.
"The health of the Everglades is about getting the water right," said Herschel Vinyard, the DEP secretary. "And a key part of getting the water right is getting the land right."
Perched atop a swamp buggy, Larson sloshes along through his sprawling ranch. Cows rest in the shade beneath palm trees; birds fly in formation overhead. A foot or two of water now covers some areas that were once dry.
Proponents of the program say it's far cheaper than buying up huge swaths of land, plus by keeping ranches in private hands, they remain on the tax rolls. Under the deal, Larson will receive $150 a year for every acre foot of water storage, or about $146,500 annually.
"There has to be some incentive," he said, "or we wouldn't do it."
Though pilot public-private land management projects similar to the one at Dixie Ranch began around 2005, they're expected to become increasingly popular out of financial necessity.
State lawmakers cut Everglades restoration funding this year from $50 million to $29 million, slashed water management district property taxes by $210.5 million, and withheld funding from the Florida Forever land-buying program.
Meeker said land management deals are just "a piece of the puzzle" and still must "be coupled with our larger regional storage and water quality projects."
State Sen. Thad Altman, R-Viera, who is helping organize a new Everglades caucus in the Legislature, said "land acquisition is the cornerstone of restoring the Everglades" and that he hopes to see Florida Forever funded next session. But he said land management deals such as those signed this week are also positive tools, particularly in tough budget times.
"You can buy a lot more," he said.